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The largest global tourism summit organized by the United Nations ended Thursday with officials defending Zimbabwe’s role as co-host after years of abuses of human and democratic rights in the southern African nation.
The 180-member United Nations World Tourism Organization said it re-elected Taleb Rifai of Jordan for a second four-year term as its secretary general at the end of the summit in the Zambian town of Livingstone, across the border from Zimbabwe’s Victoria Falls resort.
Rifai earlier brushed aside criticism the six-day meeting gave legitimacy to President Robert Mugabe’s government in the aftermath of disputed presidential elections.
“We are not here to deliberate on grand issues, we can do that anywhere else in the world,” he said. “It was the correct and right decision. The excitement, optimism and hope this meeting has created made everything worthwhile.”
About 1,200 delegates discussed tourism development programs for mostly poor, developing nations, accompanied by carnival parades in the two towns overlooking the Victoria Falls, a wide curtain of falling water and rising spray whose local name roughly translates as “the smoke that thunders.”
Mugabe, speaking at a banquet Wednesday, urged delegates to promote Zimbabwe as a safe tourist destination to counter Western allegations of rights violations in the country he has led since 1980, the state broadcaster reported. Mugabe was also quoted by state radio as saying U.S. State Department advisories on safety risks in Zimbabwe were erroneous.
“We are not terrorists,” the president said, calling on Western critics to visit Victoria Falls to “have their minds repaired.”
Australia, Canada, the U.S. and former colonial power Britain are not members of the UNWTO. Western governments are generally skeptical of the value of the biennial meeting attended mostly by nations with a poor record in tourism, conservation and political stability.
Zimbabwe hired management consultants to run the summit, saying it did not have local expertise to meet the UNWTO’s specific needs for all the arrangements. It dropped the slogan “Zimbabwe-Africa’s Paradise” after non-Christian communities took offense, officials said, replacing it with “Zimbabwe-A World of Wonders.”
Walter Mzembi, Zimbabwe’s tourism minister, told the summit that the country plans to set up a world-class Disneyland-style theme park outside Victoria Falls town for the projected cost of $300 million. The famed arch-span iron railroad bridge adjacent to the falls was built in 1905. It has been floodlit for the summit and, commercial sponsors say, will remain lit at night for the next 15 years as a legacy of the summit. Mzembi said the Victoria Falls theme park would include shopping, banking, exhibition, entertainment and casino facilities.
It is not clear where funding for the project will come from as Mugabe’s ZANU-PF party pushes ahead with a sweeping black empowerment program to take control of the last 1,200 foreign or white-owned businesses, as the party promised voters who returned it to power.
According to official figures, Zimbabwe received 404,280 visitors in the first three months of 2013, compared to 346,300 in the same period last year. The rise was attributed mainly to improvements in the economy driven by liberalization and Western-friendly investment policies of the finance ministry controlled by former Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, who shared power with Mugabe in a shaky coalition forged by regional leaders after the disputed elections of 2008.
The coalition ended July 31 after elections Tsvangirai said were massively rigged. Mugabe did not allow Western observers to monitor the polls.
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